Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S3. EPISODE 11
The Modern Muslim World, Social Media’s Positive Effects, and Gay Marriage in America
Featuring Mustafa Akyol
Are we in an ebb of liberalism worldwide, or are recent events like the protests in Iran a sign of pushback? What would a “John Locke” movement for Islam look like? We’re joined by Mustafa Akyol, senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, whose work examines the intersection of religion, culture, and government. Plus, the first GMO aimed at solving a public health issue, social media’s surprisingly positive effects on American teens, and the new paradigm for gay marriage in the US.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having our third season of conversations about what could go right, which in no way precludes looking at all the things that are all the time going wrong, but is animated by a spirit of we spend too much time on the “What could go wrong?” question and not enough looking at the ways in which we’re dealing with that, the ways in which we may be solving it, and listening to sensibilities and voices that start from a different perspective. And today, we’re gonna have, in many ways, a sort of a part two discussion to an earlier episode we did with Reza Aslan to look at what I think is one of the more important evolutions in the world today, which is the ongoing protests in Iran about the nature of what that society’s gonna be after a almost 40-plus-year period of intense religious authoritarianism. And of course, we don’t know how that’s gonna play out. And it’s not just about Iran. It’s one of these touchpoints globally where people are trying to figure out what the organizational reality of their society is gonna be and what the dominant motif is gonna be, whether it’s gonna be a few number of people dictating a morality that’s then enforced, or a more collective definition thereof. I suppose to some degree that’s going on in China today with protests around massive COVID restrictions, which are a proxy way of protesting around what can feel to be excessive and arbitrary government control. Again, we don’t know how these things are gonna play out. The recent past does not give one much hope that these will play out in a more open and inclusive way, but the very fact that they’re going on is a continual reminder that these questions are by no means settled, and they are certainly not settled in the negative. So, Emma, tell us about who we’re gonna speak with today.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today, we’re gonna talk to Mustafa Akyol. He’s the senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, where he focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity. He’s been a frequent opinion writer for The New York Times since 2013, covering politics and religion in the Muslim world. He’s also the author of four books, and he hosts The Thinking Muslim podcast.
ZK: So let’s talk with Mustafa.
EV: All right.
ZK: So, Mustafa, thanks so much for joining us today to talk about what’s going on in the strange world that we continually inhabit. We talked a bit back on an earlier episode of What Could Go Right? with Reza Aslan about the evolving story of what’s going on in Iran and the months-long protests there. For those of you who are listening, we are recording this right after news came out that the Iranian government may or may not be disbanding their religious police and may or may not be changing the dress code laws about what women must wear, particularly whether or not they have to wear a hijab. So we have no idea how all this is gonna play out. We’re not entirely clear whether whatever reports are entirely clear, and nor are we entirely clear whether the Iranian government is acting coherently or incoherently. So just with that as a series of provisos that by the time whomever’s listening to this may be listening to it, everything may have changed. I guess that’s always true, right? Everything may have changed. The world could have ended. We could have been hit by an asteroid, although I guess then you probably wouldn’t be listening to the podcast. But who knows? You’ve been cogitating, thinking, writing, commenting. You’ve been one of the more eloquent observers of what’s going on, certainly in the Islamic world. I hesitate to say all that because that’s kind of a silly term, just like the West is a silly term. But we’ll leave that to another discussion. So what do you think is going on here? Is this just another kind of moment of brief hope that we all seem to seize onto that’s gonna end in a veil of tears? Or do you think something is changing?
Mustafa Akyol (MA): Well, thanks so much for having me in the first place. And what is happening in Iran, I think we are seeing a crisis of religious coercion in Iran, crisis with religious coercion. By religious coercion, what I mean is it’s a fundamental feature of the Iranian regime since 1975. But we also see in Afghanistan under the Taliban, Saudi Arabia certainly has that, and of course, this is not the whole Muslim world. The Muslim world is like made of 55– or the Muslim majority world, like, is made of 55 different countries, some of which are, you know, secular democracies, some of tend to be more liberal, others are not. But in about a dozen, at least, countries, you have the idea that religion should be enforced by the state and state-employed police forces. So if you are a good Muslim, and if you’re not fasting in Ramadan, the police can come and admonish you. If you are a Muslim, or even actually anybody, you have to cover– like if you’re female, you have to cover your hair. I mean, that’s the compulsory hijab in Iran. So Islam has a lot of religious practices, which Muslims all over the world willingly follow, right? I mean, Muslims fast in Ramadan, most people pray five times a day, sometimes [inaudible]. So people have these practices, but enforcing them, making sure that these are, you know, implemented by individuals, that’s a whole different idea. And this was tried by Christians for a long time too. The whole idea of the inquisition, the anti-heresy dictates in Christianity, burning books. I mean, there was a time that Christianity was in this crisis. It became very acute in the 16th and 17th centuries, really just wars between different Christian sects. That was a time when ideas of toleration and freedom became pronounced by certain thinkers in the Christian world. John Locke was one of them, Leibniz was another one, or Lessing, you know. Ultimately, it led to the US idea of separation of church and state, you know, religious freedom constitutional order. I think in some parts of the Muslim world, we are in a moment like that, that there’s a crisis of religious coercion and it’s hurting people, it’s creating a lot of reaction, it is actually not even serving the religion because when you try to make people religious, they turn out to be more secular, and we are seeing that in Iran. So it’s going on, but these interpretations are there. And I believe that’s what I say, I believe in a John Locke movement in some parts of the Islamic world today where we have to make sure that Islamic fate is separated from coercive power and that includes policing, that includes blasphemy laws, apostasy laws and things like that.
EV: So, Mustafa, what’s your view of like the sort of mix of culture, government, and religion that, you know, gets certain governments mixed with a religion, mixed with a culture to the point where you have something like the morality police, where you’re having this religious coercion, and then, you know, in regards to the sort of John Locke movement, how do you start to undo that?
MA: Well, you do that by propagating certain ideas, right? And trying to put them into action, and by convincing more and more Muslims, hopefully religious authorities and lay Muslims, that ideas of freedom should be appreciated because when we don’t have that, when we use religion coercively, it is not right in the first place, it’s not mandated by the religious text in the first place, but that, of course, opens an endless era of discussion. And also, these are counterproductive. I mean, one argument I always say about Iran is that if Muslims are really worried that other Muslims should be pious so we should all be saved in the afterlife, and, you know, piety and faith is important, well, Iran has totally achieved the opposite of that. Iranian society has become quite secular with conversions to Christianity, with a lot of people becoming atheist and people becoming not observant precisely because religion is imposed on them, and it has these countereffects. So how do you go forward? Some parts are cultural, as you said, Emma. I mean, for example, some of the things that the Taliban is imposing on Afghanistan society ’90s, where it’s more brutal, but now they’re back and with little difference. Some things are cultural, so there’s some tribal cultural ideas, but other things are religious texts, I mean, written in medieval times. So they believe in implementing those things. So I’m calling for reinterpreting these texts. Like one example is, you may have heard that, I mean, Taliban banned women from traveling alone without a male guardian, right? That’s the term. And it was there also for a long time in Saudi Arabia. Where does this come from? Why they’re obsessed that women should not go around with a male guardian? Well, there are a few hadiths, these are sayings attributed to prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as we would say, which does say women should not go alone for a distance of one day or three days, you know, without a male guardian. Now, so you read this and you implement this. So that’s one way of looking at it. The other way is to say, well, why the prophet might have said this? What’s the intention? What’s the wisdom behind this? Well, if you ask that question as some scholars did, you come to another conclusion. Well, he said that because it was a very dangerous environment in 7th century Arabia. Women unprotected and women didn’t have their arms, you know, they were always protected by men, going in the desert would be prey to bandits and other tribes. So there was a very acute security situation. So let women not go alone by themselves to protect them in a clear moment of danger. So it’s about security. Oh, security today maybe is more about putting your seatbelts when you drive so you might have other security concerns. So that is a less literalist, but a more intention-based approach, as we would call it in Islamic law. And these things are being discussed. And what I try to do is highlight the more magnanimous interpretations that are already in the Islamic tradition or in the works of some maybe contemporary scholars and academics, and try to put them to the fore in these hot button issues that are going on in the Muslim world about religious freedom, about civil liberties, about democracy and such issues.
ZK: So I wonder whether you see what’s going on in various parts of– yes, we talked about the loose term of the Muslim world being one, you know, that incorporates a huge swath of cultures around a large geography of the planet, probably is not that meaningful a generalization. But, you know, another way of looking at this, which has been common over the past, I don’t know, 5 to 10 years, is what you see in countries like Iran is just one manifestation of a kind of rejection of globalization or rejection of what’s been going on in the past 20 years that’s linked to a lot of societies that, in various ways, various populations are pushing back against. And I guess you seem to suggest, which others have, that you have kind of a counter counter reaction going on in Iran, right? That at some point people reject the rejection. But I wonder how you kind of view that as has the rise of certain kind of Islamic nationalist or fundamentalist movements been the same thing as the rise of authoritarianism in other parts of the world?
MA: Well, I mean, when we speak about the history of the Islamic world with liberal democracy as we state, I mean, that’s what I would define as the goal that I’m hoping to achieve, there is something that has complicated this in the past two centuries, let’s say from the beginning of this discussion. And that is on the one hand, this idea of liberal democracy, human rights or religious freedom, or women’s rights, you know, gender equality, they come from the West typically, and they are actually pretty good. You know, a lot of Muslims like these ideas and it sounds good. But at the same time, the West is a colonial power that comes and occupies your countries and puts, you know, sometimes puppet dictatorships. And that has created a tension. And in Iran, for example, what has happened is that before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Shah regime in Iran was a secular regime. It was oriented towards further secularizing Iranian society. It had great relations with the United States and its allies, but it was oppressive. And it was seen as a Western puppet imposed on Iran, at least by large swaths of society. And for example, the Shah, the early Shah had banned Muslim women from wearing hat scarves on the streets. It was like French secularism, but in a more extreme form, right? I mean, you’re trying to save women from their tradition, liberate them. So that was totally wrong. And what happened is that it gave you the mirror image of this time, an Islamic regime comes to power and telling women what to wear. And what you don’t have in both models is that you don’t have a limited government, which says, well, women will wear what they choose to wear. And you know, it’s not the job of the government to dictate. So there’s this dynamic and it’s important, therefore, on the one hand, while making the case for more freedom, civil liberties, human rights in the Muslim world, and hopefully an evolution towards liberal democracies, it’s important to diffuse this tension between the East and West and also make sure that this is not a colonial design or some, some colonial justification to further– because that’s in the minds of a lot of Muslims. Regarding the broader scene, I mean, we, of course, seeing a tendency towards illiberalism, not just in the Muslim world today, but, you know, Russia is resurgent. There are illiberal forces even challenging Western democracies because I believe it is hard to sustain an idea where individuals all have the same rights and they’re protected under the law and the government should be limited and acting with certain rules. I mean, this is a hard achievement, and you can achieve it but there’s no way it’ll be sustained. It can be challenged by religious fanaticism, it can be challenged by racist fanaticism. When people see people who are not like them becoming their neighbors and becoming their coworkers, sometimes they don’t want that. And those people could be heretics, those people could be people from a different culture, from a different race, and they want authoritarian rulers to, you know, teach them a lesson and so on and so forth. So I think we’re seeing a crisis of all that in the whole world. But in the world of Islam, there are certain more specific issues about the interpretation of religion, and that’s the area I’m mostly working about.
EV: Mustafa, when you said, you know, some people might say, oh, [laughs], when they suddenly realize they have coworkers that are not like them, they might not like that, it makes me think of Greece. We’re recording as I’m in the US right now, but I usually live in Greece. And Pew Research Cente, I think, came out with a poll a few months ago about which countries actively think that diversity is a positive thing and think that, you know, having neighbors that aren’t like you would be a positive thing. And Greece just like– it was Greece and Japan who were like one of the lowest [laughs], you know, countries on the list for thinking that that was positive. So that didn’t make me feel very proud, but it made me think of, you know, you had put out a tweet about the importance of societies to self-reflect, and without that kind of self-reflection that they sort of harden and, you know, get sclerotic. And I was wondering, are you able to identify what factors at play come into, you know, action with these kinds of societies that lends itself to this hardening and this kind of like unopening to diversity?
MA: Well, thank you so much for saying that, Emma, because I’m from Turkey, and you know, Greece is just on the other side of the Aegean and I’ve found these two countries fascinating, in the 20th century especially, because they both had a very illiberal approach towards their own minorities. So Greeks on the Turkish side have been persecuted, sometimes, you know, they were looked at with suspicion, their religious institutions were closed down or limited. And Turks on the other side of the Aegean, this time, Greeks had the same problem. And I once said that like, why Turkey and Greece has this policy of let’s all make sure that we suppress their own minorities equally, instead, why don’t we liberate them, you know, give them full rights? And there were times that, you know, the two countries got close to that, but not always. And, you know, there are a lot of– actually, they did this tragic thing called the Population Exchange in 1922. Like a million people from Turkey who were Greeks, you know, ethnically, were expelled to Greece and Greece itself expelled Turks. So, I mean, nationalism is actually one of the core problems in our part of the world and you see that clearly in both sides. Now, how do we make people understand that diversity is not a threat, but a challenge? Well, I mean, certainly, you work with prejudices, right? I mean, in all these communities. That’s one thing. But I also believe in making sure that within diversity, we also cultivate a language of universality as well, right? Yes, there are differences, there are religious differences, for example, but there commonality, and that commonality comes from human nature, that comes from our common rationality, common emotions, common aspirations. And when we do that, we have this very good mix of diversity with a sense of universality and commonness. And when we have that in human history, there’s generally great progress. I mean, that happened in early Islam, for example. I mean, we Muslims are typically proud of the medieval Islamic civilization where things were really good. I mean, thousand years ago, best scientists in the world were in Baghdad or Cairo and, you know, in Cordoba, Muslim cities. Muslims were pioneers of medicine and architecture and philosophy for sure or optics or, you know, a lot of things– algebra come from al-jabr, which is the word in Arabic. What was the secret of that, for example? The secret of that was the Islamic world at the time was quite diverse. We call it the Islamic world, but actually Muslims were not even the majority of it. So you had Christians and Jews participating in the Islamic culture. And Muslims didn’t shy away from studying from Aristotle and studying Plato, Galen, I mean, Greek philosophers. So it was diverse, but also, it was not diverse in a clustered way that we put people into these different camps and they are all, you know, only thinking about their identity. So I think that has a certain limitation. Different identities, religious, cultural, or racial, with a sense of common human aspirations and values. And at the time, it was philosophy. It was reason. Reason was the commonality that made Ibn Rushd, a great philosopher of Islam, to become the best commentator on Aristotle, which was also then transferred to, you know, Europe through St. Thomas Aquinas [inaudible] that’s in the Jewish tradition. So I think the more we preserve that, that is a secret to both peace and progress in human history. We’ve seen that in the United States, I think, as well too. But the challenges to those come from either narrow-minded tribalism, come from hating the other, or losing a sense of universal values on which we can agree on.
ZK: So, you know, in the United States, while the general narrative is welcome and open to immigration and immigrants and people from other countries, which, as a general narrative, is accurate. It is also true that it oscillates between openness and Emma Lazarus’s poems on the Statue of Liberty of, you know, bring us everyone, to periods of time where there’s a reaction against that, a counter reaction. Multiple times in the 19th century, there have been anti-immigration bills largely directed first against Asians and against Southern or Eastern Europeans. And we’re clearly in a more fraught time with that. So let me ask you a personal question. If you were thinking about coming to the United States today as you did at one point earlier in your life, would you still do so? Is this something that you’d think is– while it is an oscillation, it’s not kind of an oscillation like the 1920s or 1880s. I mean, granted, none of us were alive in, you know, the 1880s or 1920s so who knows what we would’ve felt had we been alive then about the current culture versus what we think about it, looking back at it, writing about it as history. But still, you know, you’ve seen, I think, a change, certainly in the time that you’ve been in the United States, about whether or not there is a kind of embracive openness to a more nationalist intolerance or a non-celebration of diversity. So I guess, first of all, what do you feel personally and what’s your experience been, and then where do you see this going culturally in the United States?
MA: That’s a great question. I’ve moved to the United States just five years ago, so it’s actually pretty new. And I mean, before that, I’ve been back and forth many times for a lot of things, but I began living in the United States about five years ago.
ZK: Oh, I didn’t realize it was that recent. I thought you were more in like the 15-year period. So I guess for you, things are so much better than they were five years ago [laughs].
MA: [Laughs] well, I remember the good days, you know, and I came to hope for those, and then I moved in at the beginning of 2017, so President Trump was just actually being inaugurated or something. That’s the time I came. And there were people who were speaking of a Muslim ban, and I was like, I’m a Muslim. Am I in trouble in this country? So I came at a time when actually some of the things were unraveling and gave me, of course, a certain doubt. And it’s still there, obviously. I mean, I came to United States from Turkey at a time when Turkey was going pretty bad. I mean, if you look at the human rights situation, Turkey’s freedom of speech. If you’re a person in Turkey who’s been in the media and who’s critical of the government, which was my case, your chances are not very good, you know, for the foreseeable future. So that was one reason I came with an opportunity at the Cato Institute to work on these issues of freedom in the world of Islam. So I’m glad I came to the United States. And I’ll tell you one thing. United States has huge problems. You don’t realize it when you look at from the outside. I mean, people in different parts of the world think that Americans are sitting together and all making plans of how do we better dominate and rule the world? I mean–
MA: Well, I mean, you guys cannot get along. They have huge issues within themselves. You realize that when you come here.
ZK: I was gonna invite you to the how do we dominate the world dinner that we’re having next week.
ZK: I’ll send you the invite in an encrypted email [inaudible] But yeah, I mean, we all sit around and talk about that.
MA: Yeah, that’s great. But the other thing is I see the problems, but I think it’s still pretty good. I mean, compared to the alternatives. I mean, maybe because of the constitutional history, because of the political culture. Obviously, there is a very disturbing, far right element in US politics. Like some of the stuff I’ve seen in the Middle East, and I was always saying, you know what? This is so wrong and we should not be like this. We should be like the United States. Then they appeared here. Like, I mean, conspiracy theories, crazy conspiracy theories that demonize other sections of society, I mean, they become so prolific in here. So that’s something that convinces me that liberal democracy is a fragile system and it needs to be cultivated and protected by culture, by constant intellectual effort and struggle. On the other hand, I would say still it would be wrong, I think, to be totally negative about this country, because despite all the problems, despite all the complexities, I see still a functioning system, a rule of law. I see still people believing in, you know, you could be neighbors with different people. That’s not the end of the world. There’s something good in that. In other parts of the world, if there were this many people with different religions and cultures and races living together, you could have more problems. Here, despite everything, I think there’s a civic culture that is, although it’s been challenged, it is still there, and it gives me hope. On top of that, there’s a history of, you know, freedom, you know, and human rights, which, despite all the problems, have moved forward, right? I mean, the civil rights movement and so on and so forth. Yeah. So I’ve seen problems, but I’m still optimistic, at least I want to be optimistic, about the future, the US. Because I’ve come from a part of the world where things were going bad, I hope things will get better here, not worse.
EV: Yeah, it’s nice to hear that from someone that came within the last five years, especially. Mustafa, I have a question, you know, about where you think the role of religion is gonna be in the modern world, what kind of role it’s going to have, because there’s a lot of ink that’s been spilled about the decline of religiosity. You know, I come from the Buddhist world. There’s a a lot going on there about declining numbers in a lot of Buddhist countries. So what do you think? You know, is it something that’s like, no way, it’s such an important part of human culture and it’s going to stick around? Or is it like a adapt or die kind of thing? Where do you stand?
MA: This question was discussed about a century ago, and there were people who thought that religion would just vanish, you know, as we modernize. That was the early modernization thesis, you know, in the early 20th century. That didn’t turn out to be true. And also, so that’s [inaudible]. Also, we saw that there’s nothing necessarily good about a post-religious world too, right? We’ve seen secular ideologies in the 20th century that were incredibly destructive, like communism, fascism. These were not religious, but these were other kind of ideologies. So the lesson I take from these two experiences is that I think religion is here to stay. It’s a part of human nature to aspire something beyond, right? I mean, something transcendent. And when you take that away, actually, when you force that to disappear, you end up with sometimes these modern alternative religions of human. A leader turns into a demigod, and people start to worship that. That becomes your transcendence. So I’m a religious person, and I believe in the value of religion, and also I believe in the mere fact that it’s a part of human nature. It’s not gonna go away. However, religions can be toxic, religions can be violent and oppressive, or they can be a force for good. And so that’s why I believe in working within every religious tradition to make it a force for good, that is the common good, that is not oppressing other people, not blaming other people for being heretics and infidels and, you know, building up hate against those, which is a problem certainly in religious history and pockets of the Islamic world today. And I think religions should understand that if they turn that idea of transcendence into a militant tribalism, whereas God is on our side, we’re better than everybody because he’s our God, they’re actually causing a lot of trouble in the name of religion. It turns ugly. And actually, religion begins to lose. So if there will be a secularization, like a widespread secularization, loss of faith in religion, that is not because of the modern world. That is because religious people themselves do terrible things, right? When look at religion, they don’t see values that inspire them, but they see an ugly self-righteousness and militancy that really disgusts them. And that that is happening in Iran. That is happening in certain parts of the Muslim world today. And I think I see, for example, Catholic integralists in America who are saying, you know what? We should religionize the state again. Well, they should question– you know, instead of fighting the free society and liberalism, they should question maybe did we do something wrong as religious people and could not win hearts and minds? So I think if religions work for good by winning hearts and minds and bringing something good for the common good, yeah, they have a place to stay, and that’s legitimate and that’s welcome and I think that’s necessary. But it depends on– I mean, are you creating an inquisition out of it? Are you creating a message of toleration, magnanimity and ethical values? It depends.
ZK: So, Mustafa, I wanna thank you for your time today and the work that you have been doing. Obviously, these are not conversations that end with one conversation so we will keep having these and see how these evolve, hopefully in a way that leads to more concord and less discord, which is I guess the opposite direction things have been going for a certain period of time. But as we know, you know, there is an ebb and there is a flow, and we may be in the ebb moment, but that doesn’t mean that should be extrapolated as a permanent feature going forward. And you’ve, I think, pointed quite meaningfully in your work about other paths that are possible, other paths that have been taken, and that’s been quite welcome. So thank you.
MA: Thank you. I mean, that’s wonderful to hear and thanks for having me on the Network, and glad to meet you guys in person.
EV: Thanks, Mustafa. You too.
ZK: So, Emma, I do love conversations like that. I love all the conversations we have. I should say that from the outset. I don’t wanna be seen as choosing between our children. So, you know, there is a tonality and a spirit that people like Mustafa have that to me, in and of itself, is a starting point. You know, there’s just an openness and inclusiveness to his language, a historical sense of how things have been and how they are and how they might be. And yes, there’s a certain amount of preaching to the choir in that. Of course I would like the way he speaks because [laughs], I like that kind of speaking. I know that’s not necessarily appealing to everybody, and it may not have a huge amount of traction in the face of people who want certainty and clarity and black and white answers, but even so.
EV: But I think it does have the long-term staying power for people who might be persuaded by him. Like if you’re trying to persuade in the long-term, I’m definitely of the philosophical point of view that it does need that kind of tonality. And like Mustafa said, the language of universality, which I really loved, that little phrase. And the other thing I really appreciated about Mustafa and I was thinking about while we were talking with him is his sense of like, staying with it. You could certainly grow up in a religion and see its drawbacks and say, forget this, you know, this isn’t for me. Or you could stay with it and say, actually, this is a really important thing to me, and let’s try to pinpoint some of the places where I think we could do better. And that’s not that easy, actually. It’s easier to leave in some ways.
ZK: Right. Staying with something that is hard is harder than checking out because it’s too difficult. I feel that way about engagement in the American political process, right? It feels easy to check out and hard to stay with, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t stay with it. And look, there is a degree to which when Mustafa is reflecting on his experience being in the United States over the past five years, which he didn’t dwell on, but the reality is he couldn’t function the way he is currently functioning had he stayed in Turkey just given the restrictions on press and expression and the tendency of the Erdoğan government to arrest those who can claim in any manner, shape, or form, or are critical or are threatening to the regime. And that in and of itself is just a huge difference. You know, I’m not saying this from like, woohoo, the United States is great. Even he said he was surprised at seeing some of, in contemporary American culture that he had seen in other parts of the world that he didn’t expect. Even so, that very fact, I mean, one of the things I think we need to continue to remind ourselves is that the sheer unmitigated noise and freedom of expression in the United States is a powerful, powerful guardrail against that which we fear most. And yes, there are threats to that. And yes, we need to be mindful. And yes, some people feel within the chaos of noise, you can find ways to control. I suppose that’s true theoretically, but compared to most of the world, that unmitigated expression is in fact a bull work of whatever we call freedom.
EV: Yeah, I mean, you have to wonder about– like Mustafa mentioned that moment when he came over to the US and it was right for the talk of the Muslim ban and how that must have been for him to wonder if, like the way you put it, Zachary, if that ebb was gonna stay ebbed or if it was just an ebb. I really like how you framed that because there’s this weird tension and interesting question of like, how far back does the ebb have to go for you to say this isn’t for me? And how far back can it go while people are still like, okay, we’re gonna keep fighting for this to go back in the other direction?
ZK: It’s that eternal question of how long does something have to be different before it’s a new paradigm as opposed to an anomaly?
EV: Right [laughs].
ZK: So let’s talk a bit about what’s going on in the world that is other than this.
EV: Yeah. So we’re gonna talk about some other progress in the United States when it comes to gay marriage. I mean, this is something certainly that people will know that occurred, but I would like to talk about it with our own particular perspective. And that’s the Respect for Marriage Act, which, you know, we are recording this the first week of December, expecting that to be passed by the House and be signed by Joe Biden.
Audio Clip: – are 61, the nays are 36. The bill, as amended, has passed.
Mr. President, what a great day. What a great day. The Senate is passing the Respect for Marriage Act. Today, the long, but inexorable march towards greater equality, advances forward. No matter who you are or who you love, you too deserve dignity and equal treatment under the law.
EV: Some people say it’s a little bit of a nothing burger, it’s just there just in case the Supreme Court wants to roll back interracial and gay marriage. But I think there’s a more hopeful and landmark, you know, historic treatment that you could give it, where, you know, if you look back on where we were in gay marriage 60 years ago in the US, we are definitely in a new paradigm now, to use your words.
ZK: It’s remarkable how quickly that’s happened, meaning how quickly we went from– even Obama when he was running for office in 2008, would not explicitly endorse the legalization of or marriage as being between whomever chooses to be married, something which he was, I think, criticized for subsequently, right? That he didn’t take a stand that was moral. He took a stand that was political. But the fact that that stand needed to be taken politically 15, 14 years ago, and that now– I don’t remember what the final vote was in the Senate.
ZK: You know, still, it’s largely a Democrat bill, but it was unusually for something that had been such a heated moral issue. It was genuinely bipartisan. It will likely be so in the House. And I think that’s extraordinary, just like much of what’s going on in terms of drug legalization and decriminalization. And I think you can look at even the drug issues, even if you think these are harmful substances that shouldn’t be allowed or shouldn’t be used, there’s a difference between that and criminalizing them. Most people think cigarettes are harmful and shouldn’t be used, but we don’t throw people in jail and we do not expend police and criminal justice resources in order to get people not to use cigarettes. This is not an endorsement of all those substances or a condemnation, it’s just saying, look, the paradigm shift is extraordinary. If you’d asked someone 25 years ago, did you think that there would be a move toward massive decriminalization of drugs, you know, the end of the war on drugs and massive acceptance of a different definition of marriage, that would’ve been, I think, intuitively surprising, just as it would’ve been surprising if you’d said that we were gonna remove a national right to abortion. So there’s a two step forward, one step back, clearly going on.
EV: [laughs] but we actually– you know, we do have those numbers. That’s what’s kind of cool about it. You know, Gallup poll people about gay marriage in 1996. That was the first time they banned polling the issue. It had a 27% approval rate. Now it’s over 71% and it’s crossed the 50% threshold for Republicans as well. So it’s 55% of Republicans. So despite the votes for it, the American people are certainly like, yeah, okay. You know, there’s certainly people that are die hard anti-gay marriage. It’s probably the way that they’re gonna be, but as a society, we seem to have crossed the threshold here.
ZK: That’s wild and good.
EV: Yeah, wild and good. I like that-
EV: -[laughs] as some motto. Wild and good. So second little piece of news today is something that’s still fairly controversial because it involves genetic engineering of food. But this is cool because this is actually the first instance of a humanitarian project using genetic engineering to solve a public health issue. And that’s a strain of rice in the Philippines called golden rice, which has been edited to have extra beta-carotene, which is converted by the body to vitamin A, which prevents, you know, lots of health conditions like blindness and other major health effects, particularly for young kids, breastfeeding moms, and pregnant women. And the Philippines is the first country to give it a try. They’re actually have harvested the rice and are distributing it to households. And this has been a project that started in 1991. So that’s [laughs] how long it has taken for this to reach its– not endpoint, but its first try. But I think it’s pretty cool.
ZK: So we will definitely do an episode of this next year about the kind of the debates around genetic modification of food. As you know, I’m doing a new book at some point, but I am engaged in a new book to write about a history of corn as a technology we eat. And clearly, one of the huge fishers in the past 30, 40 years has been over GMOs, about genetically modified organisms. And golden rice, as you said, has been around since the early 1990s, but met huge opposition in multiple societies because it is absolutely a GMO. And the problem has been we are able to modify our food chain in ways that might be planetarily challenging in terms of monocultures, but we are also able to do them in ways that are both nutritionally and climatologically vital. And the knee-jerk reaction against also precludes any consideration of what could be constructive. Similar questions around nuclear power, right? The widespread societal fear and prohibition drives out the neutrality of these things relative to what they could do that’s incredibly positive ’cause we focused almost entirely on the fear of all the ways in which they could be negative. Probably the same thing about artificial intelligence and AI. So these are all touchstones of where we feel culturally, is modernity leading us into the abyss or are the innovations that we’re able to create solutions to eternal and contemporary problems? And that’s one of the great fishers, right? One of the great chasms of contemporary culture, of individual sentiments. And, you know, I find that fascinating and I think at some point, the needs that need to be met will dictate societal acceptance more than the fear. But these are fraught issues. And, look, I think it’s great that the Philippines is as a society saying, look, this solves some problems, so let’s see where it goes.
EV: Yeah. And there’s a list of other countries watching them. Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and China are all gonna be looking to Philippines to see what happens with that. And the Philippines has also agreed to make all the data available so if it’s successful in the Philippines, it’s hopefully, probably maybe gonna be a fast transition into these other places. But yeah, it’s definitely one where I kind of get the knee-jerk distrust. Like I think about like the genetic modification of food and my gut reaction goes like, ugh. But I think what story has not been told very well, and the story that a lot of people don’t know, is how much we have cut down on malnutrition and hunger through genetic engineering and the fact that we’ve been able to adjust crops and crop yields and just really like how many people have been saved by that. So looking forward to that episode when we do it. Looking forward to your book. And we have one last, not a piece of news, but, again, it’s sort of a– this is a different treatment on a common topic and probably something we’ll also do an episode on in the future. The Pew Research Center came out with data about how teens see social media.
Audio Clip: I think communication is becoming compromised by so much time being spent online.
Most kids are spending more than five hours a day on social media or playing video games. The numbers come from a recent survey from A Wired Family. The data gives a snapshot at how kids are using technology today and reveals some startling statistics.
And they’re comparing them themselves, their faces, their bodies, their hair, their skin tone, to what are really curated photographs.
EV: Of course, the common narrative with teens and social media is that it’s kind of destroying their lives. And you know, they’re sitting in their rooms. They don’t have any friends [laughs]. All they have is TikTok stars or whatever. But when you poll them, it turns out the teens are actually pretty positive about social media. Big majority say they see it as a place where they feel connected, they feel accepted, they can show their creative side. The vast majority of teens, it’s like 59%, are kind of neutral about the overall effect it has on their lives. 33% is positive and only 9% feel that social media has a negative effect on them, which is just very different than the story that you often hear in the news.
ZK: Certainly true. And, you know, everybody has an anecdote who has teens, including me, and they certainly have a different perception that’s much more in sync with the poll that you just read. There are always people who feel isolated. There are legit questions, existential and otherwise, about the addictive effects of social media and the ways in which companies that have been at the forefront of that have perfected algorithms of attention grabbing in ways that are challenging to resist, just like nicotine additives and cigarettes were challenging to resist. And I think we will probably have a conversation with Tristan Harris next season about these issues and clearly not ones that are settled and which have, I think, strong pushback on the other side that say, yeah, yeah, yeah. But the fact is they’re addictive and attention seeking and they lead to the weakening of social bonds, not the strengthening. But we have to listen to what people are actually saying and that their experience of these, or at least many people’s and many teens’ experience of these is far more variegated, which means it’s not just all the things that we feared and all the things that we know are harmful, but there’s a whole series of really constructive dynamics, which is exactly the promise of all these kind of apps and their progenitors in the 1990s and early 2000s, the aughts. I haven’t really gotten used to calling the early 2000s the aughts. It feels very-
ZK: -archaic, like we’re talking about the 1900s, not the 2000s. Be that as it may, these are not simple questions. They’re nuanced questions. And nuance is not an easy public sell as part of a debate. Yeah, there’s some good things and there’s some bad things.
ZK: But most of human existence-
ZK: -resides in the nuance even if most of media resides in the extremes. And we’re gonna do our best to continue to talk about the gray areas, of which this is one and there are others. So thank you for bringing that to our collective attention, Emma.
EV: Thank you, Zachary. And I hope people will come back for the episodes on these topics.
ZK: Next year. This is like a preview. If we were, you know, a streaming video service, this would be our two minutes of stay tuned, these are the things you can look forward to.
EV: Next season on What Could Go Right? [laughs]
ZK: Dun dun dun. [Laughs] thank you all for listening.
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org.
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